A nod to the past, an education for the future
By Kris Leonhardt
AMHERST JUNCTION – A sculpture installed Oct. 22 at Lake Emily County Park, gives a nod to the park’s storied indigenous heritage while providing a teaching moment for those who visit the site.
In the 1880s, 24 Native American burial mounds were mapped around the lake. Wisconsin is also home to more burial mounds than any state in the nation. These sites are made up of intentional landscape features that are not quite fully understood by archaeologists.
“So what’s fascinating is to understand that there is art that has been created by the indigenous peoples that stretches back 1000s of years that is on the landscape, and today we get to be here to see this wonderful new piece to add to that wonderful story of Native American artwork on the landscape itself,” Wisconsin Archaeological Society President Rob Nurre
“The Wisconsin Archaeological Society back about 100 years ago, put a lot of brass plaques on effigy mounds and other native sites, and they help people understand that these places were important. There’s somewhat inappropriate today; I kind of derisively referred to them as being the ‘Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval’ for Native American sites. And we’re actually working to replace a lot of those with things like this that tell the story so much better. And this, I will certainly use as I work with our organization, as an example of what we should be doing today.”
UWSP Emeritus Professor of Archaeology Ray Reser and Karen Ann Hoffman, of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, were instrumental in assisting the Portage County Park Commission with introducing the educational piece,
“I sat on the park commission and Karen Ann and I were involved with the burials at UWSP. Then we looked at where else in the county we could do something that would recognize or acknowledge the Native American presence and the deep past. The entire lake here at Lake Emily is completely rimmed by village sites and burial mounds. There’s dance rings to the west on private land…,” explained Reser.
“We thought, if we were going to do something on county land and a county park, where is the most accessible place to do it. So, we kind of settled on Lake Emily, because the lake road goes right through here. It’s easy to install something here; it’s easy to see it from the road. It is right in the middle of a Native American site, but it also doesn’t impinge on Native American burial mounds, which are protected under state statute.
“It also sends a message that the Native Americans are still here on the landscape and this was a really sacred place, just as it is for all of us who use it as a park.
“Karen Ann worked hard and raised a bulk of the money; CREATE Portage County kicked in money for it. So, we were able to move ahead with the project; it’s not costing the county much of anything. They bought a rock and had it placed. So, a number of different partners. It came together and it came together in a great way.
Karen Ann Hoffman explained the importance of both the sculpture and its creator.
“My old people always say, ‘Be mindful and thankful for the teachers that come our way,’ You know, those teachers come in many forms. We say that sometimes the teacher is just a worm or just a blade of grass because you can learn,” she said.
“Today, I am mindful and I’m thankful that there are teachers in the world who are artists, artists who take their hearts, take their history, their cultures, and take their craft and create things for us and help us be mindful and thankful, and aware, and remember our responsibilities in our original instructions. We are mindful and thankful of the artists and all of the teachings they leave with them.”
The Artist & Sculpture
Mark Fisher is a celebrated artist of over two decades and a member of the Oneida Nation of Green Bay, Turtle Clan.
Fisher worked in Native American education at an administrative level and was instrumental in establishing several Native American scholarships.
He says that many of his designs are “inspired by ancient Woodland petroglyphs and pictographs celebrating nature, gender, and Native art and culture.”
“The sculpture is ‘The Sustainers,’ a very important part of our culture. The Sustainers are the ‘Three Sisters’ is how they’re called. And how we teach about them in our school system is that the Three Sisters’ names are corn, beans, and squash,” Fisher explained.
“The corn goes up, big, strong corn – she is a strong girl – and then the beans wrap themselves around the corn and grow up. And then the squash covers the ground with giant leaves and protects the ground from losing its moisture. So the Three Sisters is a part of our group all of the time.
“And then on our three sisters, there’s no faces. And, the reason why there’s no faces, our community – Oneida Nation of Green Bay – believes that we all have a job to do. Don’t stand in front of a mirror. And in the old days, it was stand over the water, and look at yourself.
“And do, no faces on any of our dolls, on any of our cornhusk dolls and none of our play toys have faces on them. And it’s just to represent, we are hard workers and we get the job done. I am very proud of that.
“I am so honored that the park system had a Native American build this sculpture. The sculpture was blest several times during its build, which is proper, to carry a spirit of its own and hopefully be able to protect itself.”
Lake Emily Park, a 143-acre park adjacent to the 96-acre Lake Emily, is a located just west of Amherst Junction.